In the 31th episode of the Japan Distilled podcast, your host Stephen Lyman interviews the founders and owners of Umami Mart in Oakland, California. What started as a blog has turned into a direct to consumer Japanese alcohol business with nearly national reach while also remaining a friendly neighborhood bar & liquor store.
Mixing and Editing: Rich Pav (https://www.uncannyjapan.com/)
STEPHEN LYMAN discovered Japan’s indigenous spirits at an izakaya in New York City. He was so enthralled that he now lives in Japan and works in a tiny craft shochu distillery every autumn. His first book, The Complete Guide to Japanese Drinks, was nominated for a 2020 James Beard Award.
Stephen has been friends with Yoko Kumano of Umami Mart for more than a decade. He remembers when it was a blog with a tiny online store.
If you have any comments or questions about Umami Mart, please reach out to Stephen or Christopher via Twitter. We would love to hear from you.
What is UmamiMart?
Umami Mart began its life as a blog, the brainchild of Kayoko Akabori & her high school friend, Yoko Kumano. They and their friends began writing about their culinary adventures in NYC (Kayoko) and Tokyo (Yoko) and elsewhere. Their international Japanese food and drink focused community grew and grew to the point where it was time to monetize the blog. Instead of going the usual google adwords route, they set up an online shop that became Umami Mart. Believe us when we say, we are all better off for it. Imagine if other food blogs had decided to provide actual products for their readers rather than endless banners and clickbait and ad bloat?
Flash forward to 2012 and that online shop became a brick and mortar shop in Oakland, California. This was a big challenge, but it turned out to be a great opportunity. How could they pass up the 6 months in free rent offered by their landlord in a deal with the city to revitalize downtown Oakland?
Over time they have been able to acquire their off-premise soft liquor license (beer and wine store), off-premise hard liquor license (wine & spirits), on-premise soft liquor license (beer, wine, and sake bar), and on-premise hard liquor license (full bar). Today they operate a full bar in the back of their retail store, which has been an integral meeting place for the local community.
You’ve heard of a wine of the month club, and of course, Umami Mart has their very popular Sake Gumi (sake of the month club), but what has us at Japan Distilled excited is Umami Mart’s Shochu Gumi, a quarterly delivery of two themed shochu. Upcoming theme for women’s history month is Female Frontrunners, shochu from companies with female leadership.
With a Facebook page, Instagram account, and YouTube channel, Umami Mart is hard at work with continuing to grow the online community that started with their blog. Today they are also a place for people to gather and enjoy a drink with their friends while exploring the wonderful world of Japanese spirits (and sake).
In the winding path to what they’ve become, Umami Mart has survived the Great Recession, the pandemic, and the summer of unrest. With their 10th anniversary coming up for their brick and mortar shop, we know that even bigger things are in store for these passionate young women who are fast becoming among the taste makers of Japanese beverage alcohol in the US. Thanks for everything you do!